Italy considers charges over Malta's 'shocking' refusal to rescue migrants

Lorenzo Tondo
Photograph: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images

The Italian government  has confirmed that Malta’s armed forces turned a migrant boat away at gunpoint from Maltese waters, after giving them fuel and the GPS coordinates to reach Italy.

Police in Sicily are investigating and the prosecutor’s office may open an investigation against Malta in the next few days. Maltese officers risk being charged with aiding illegal immigration. 

It comes two weeks after the Guardian published a joint exclusive with the Italian daily newspaper Avvenire containing asylum seekers’ accounts and video footage of an Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) vessel refusing to rescue 101 people in a rubber dinghy, instead pointing them to Italy. Many migrants leapt into the water to try to reach the military boat, mistakenly thinking they were being rescued.

“They came to us and said, ‘Malta has a virus called corona, if you’ve heard about it. We can’t take you there because everyone is sick in Malta. And Malta is small and can’t take all of you,’” one of the passengers who eventually made it to Sicily on 12 April told the Guardian. “They gave us red life vests, a new engine and fuel and told us they would show us the route to Italy. Then they pointed guns at us and said: ‘We give you 30 minutes.’”

Footage of the incident, initially sent to Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants, has sparked a row between Italy and Malta. In early April, both countries declared their seaports “unsafe” due to the pandemic, closing their borders and leaving boats carrying asylum seekers adrift in European search and rescue (SAR) zones. An unknown number have died at sea of dehydration or drowning.

On Thursday, the Italian foreign ministry released its report on the incident, saying: “The description of the events outlined by the investigations of Avvenire and the Guardian corresponds to what actually emerged following the landing of migrants in Pozzallo.”

According to the Italian government: “The conduct of the Maltese authorities in this circumstance is in line with an unfortunately not new attitude on the part of Valletta.” The report adds: “Maltese authorities have often evaded the obligations set out in international conventions on the subject of rescue at sea.’’

Michele Anzaldi, an MP from the Italia Viva party, said he found it “shocking that a state like Malta shows such disregard for international treaties and the lives of people, who are not rescued and are put even more at risk by forcing them to leave their own waters”. He said his party would raise the matter in Brussels.

Malta’s armed forces and government have been approached for comment.